The Olympics, both summer and winter, aim to bring the whole world together to focus on the positivity of sport and excellence, under its philosophy of good sportsmanship and fair play. However, in practice this rarely turns out so easily. The attention of the world and the Olympic pulpit are utilised for political gains and protest, to make a statement and be heard.
The terrorist threats and human rights discussions of Sochi 2014 are nothing new. Politics has affected sport as far back as the 1908 summer games when Finland demanded to compete separately from the Russian Empire, even though they were banned from using their own flag.
It is no surprise that the most dominant controversies of the Olympics’ history have been Cold War protests. The two political superpowers, the USA and the USSR, were also two of the most notable sporting superpowers, making their absence even more glaring in the peak decades of Olympic boycotts between 1956 and 1984. Their nonattendance sent a powerful message and attracted a lot of media attention, but did they actually achieve anything? The seven countries that boycotted the 1956 Australian games prevented neither the Suez Canal Crisis nor the Hungarian Revolution. The same can be said for the 62 countries that boycotted the 1980 Soviet games, and the retaliation of the 16 boycotters of the American games four years later.
Yet, in a case that reflected far more clear-cut moral injustices than the animosities of the cold war, the IOC withdrew its provisional invitation to apartheid South Africa to compete in 1968, after several African countries as well as Africa-American athletes threatened to boycott the Mexico games. South Africa was excluded from the games from 1964 to 1988 – a powerful international statement against apartheid policies.
The Olympics are designed to showcase their host cities and countries, the protests to highlight their problems. This was certainly the case with the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics which demonstrated the best and worst of the Nazi organisers. It will also play a part in the Sochi Olympics this month, although gone are the days of mass boycotts and on-site protests. Marches are being held around the world to protest Russia’s homophobic laws, and in Sochi the U.S. delegation will include two gay former-athletes in the opening and closing ceremonies. Controversy may not become the legacy of the Sochi Olympics, as it did in 1936 and 1980, yet undoubtedly these games have shined a spotlight on Russia’s blemishes.